By Naomi Klouda
Malania Helen Kehl, Nanwalek’s eldest resident, is frequently called upon around the village to impart her memories of how life used to be on this southernmost tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Among her remembrances are medicines used to heal the sick and ways of preserving sea lion meat in barrels for winter. She also is one of the last to tell the ghostly story of how the village of Port Chatham came to be deserted; why the abandoned town was shunned, and those who once lived there vowed never to return.
Kehl was born Jan. 25, 1934, at Port Chatham, then a small village founded at the edge of a peaceful moorage. The village once offered shelter for many people, including Capt. Nathaniel Portlock’s ship on his 1786 Alaska expedition. But when Kehl was a baby, the family abruptly moved away from Chatham, leaving the house and every board of its frame behind.
What frightening situation caused John and Helen Romanoff to take their children and flee to Nanwalek?
“We left our houses and the school, and started all new here,” Kehl said in a recent interview, speaking in her traditional Sugt’stun through translator Sally Ash. “There was plentiful land here for gardening and people. My parents built a house on the beach.”
What had frightened Kehl’s parents hadn’t been a single event. Over a “long period of time,” a Nantiinaq (Nan-te-nuk) — or big, hairy creature — was reportedly terrorizing villagers. And Kehl also told of the spirit of a woman dressed in draping black clothes that would come out of the cliffs.
“Her dress was so long she would drag it,” Kehl said. “She had a very white face and would disappear back into the cliffs.”
The goose-bumped terror felt when people encountered these spirits was nothing compared to what happened to Kehl’s godfather. He was working on a boat in 1931, when someone or something hit him over the head with a winch. The blow reportedly killed him instantly.
Kehl isn’t the only one to tell of strange events at Port Chatham. Port Graham Elder, Simeon Kvasnikoff, said he remembers when Nantiinaq was blamed for the disappearance of a gold miner.
“This one guy over there had a little place where he was digging for gold,” Kvasnikoff said. “He went up there one time and never came back. No one found any sign of him.”
Another story recounted the experience of a sawmill owner named Tom Larsen, who had a job cutting wood for the old fish traps. He told of spotting Nantiinaq on the beach once. After going back to his house to get his gun, he returned to the beach and “the thing looked at him,” Kvasnikoff said. For some reason, Larsen decided against firing a shot.
In an April 15, 1973, issue of the Anchorage Daily News, a feature article told of the abandoned cannery town of Portlock near Port Chatham. The writer had learned the story during an evening spent with the school teacher and his wife at English Bay (Nanwalek) while on a boat trip.
The story is told:
“Portlock began its existence sometime after the turn of the century as a cannery town. In 1921, a post office was established there, and for a time the residents, mostly natives of Russian-Aleut mix, lived in peace with their picturesque mountain-and-sea setting.”
According to the Daily News story, sometime in the beginning years of World War II, rumors began to seep along the Kenai Peninsula that things were not right in Portlock. Men from the cannery town would reportedly go up into the hills to hunt Dall sheep and bear, and never return. Worse yet, sometimes stories would circulate about mutilated bodies that were swept down into the lagoon, torn and dismembered in a way that bears could not, or would not, do.
“Tales were told of villagers tracking moose over soft ground. They would find giant, man-like tracks over 18 inches in length closing upon those of the moose, the signs of a short struggle where the grass had been matted down, then only the deep tracks of the manlike animal departing toward the high, fog-shrouded mountains … .”
The article goes on to tell how the fed-up townfolk decided to move en masse, and by 1950, the U.S. Post office had closed there.
Even into more recent times, Nantiinaq reports haven’t stopped entirely. A man named Ed, who otherwise prefers to remain anonymous, tells his story online at http://strangestate.blogspot.com/2007_09_01_archive.html.
“In 1990, while I was working as a paramedic in Anchorage, we got called out on an alarm for a man having a heart attack at the state jail in Eagle River. He was a Native man in his 70s, and after I got him stabilized with IVs, O2 and cardiac drugs, my partner and I began to transport him to the Native hospital in Anchorage.”
En route to the hospital, the paramedic and the Native man, an “Aleut” from Port Graham, talked about hunting. The paramedic had been to Dog Fish Bay and was once weathered in there.
“This old man sat up on the gurney and grabbed me by the front of my shirt. He got right up to my face and said, ‘Did it bother you?’ Well, with that question, the hair just stood up on the back of my head. I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you see it?’ was his next question. I said, ‘No. Did you see it?’ He said, ‘No, but my brother seen it. It chased him.’”
In August 1973, Ed and two others were bowhunting for goats and blackies when a storm forced them to take shelter in Dogfish Bay Lagoon.
“We beached our skiff and let the tide run her dry. After a dinner of broiled salmon we turned in to our tent. Back in those days, the best tent I had was a dark green canvas job with a center pole and no windows or floor. We left the fire burning and cleaned the pots and pans so as not to attract bears during the night and turned in,” Ed wrote.
The sky was clear, but the wind was howling through the old-growth timber that lined the shore. Sometime around 2 a.m., one of Ed’s hunting companions, Dennis, woke him after hearing what sounded like footsteps outside the tent. It wasn’t a bear. Ed said the walking — or rather, creeping — continued until it half circled the tent.
“In August, there is still some light in the sky until about 10 or 11. I recall that we all were embarrassed about being afraid about the coming night. We had a flashlight and the rifle in the tent between us, locked and loaded. I finally dozed off but woke right up when Dennis squeezed my leg. The illuminated hands of my watch showed it was 2:30. Joe was already sitting up and had the rifle in hand. I heard the first step, not more than about 10 feet from the back of the tent. Slowly. Then another and another. Whatever this was, it sounded like it was walking on two feet. It made the same semi-circle around the tent. When we finally got enough courage to crawl out of the tent and turn the flashlight on, we saw nothing. No tracks, nothing. The third night we decided if it bothered us again, we would come out of the tent shooting. We were actually scared. It never came back the third night and the following day we had a break in the weather and got the heck out of there.”
Though Sasquatches became something of a popular phenomenon in the 1960s and ’70s in the Lower 48, the Nantiinaq in Sugt’stun culture has been around for a long time. According to the culture, it might be a different kind of creature, a tragic half-man, half-beast who wasn’t always in this condition. He used to be fully human.
Elder Nick Tanape said he doesn’t discredit the stories about Nantiinaq, but says he’s never seen one.
“I think there’s something to them,” he said.
Kehl said that, once her family moved to Nanwalek, the Nantiinaq stayed far away and left them in peace. It didn’t follow them, and for that they were grateful. She grew up, raised 13 children and remains one of the few of Nanwalek’s residents who can pass on the old traditions.
Kehl – a favorite among the young people of Nanwalek, especially when she tells stories — learned many things from her grandmother, who was a traditional healer.